Shallow ground water in the eastern San Joaquin Valley is affected by high nitrate and uranium concentrations and frequent detections of pesticides and volatile organic compounds (VOC), as a result of ground-water development and intensive agricultural and urban land use. A single public-supply well was selected for intensive study to evaluate the dominant processes affecting the vulnerability of public-supply wells in the Modesto area. A network of 23 monitoring wells was installed, and water and sediment samples were collected within the approximate zone of contribution of the public-supply well, to support a detailed analysis of physical and chemical conditions and processes affecting the water chemistry in the well. A three-dimensional, steady-state local ground-water-flow and transport model was developed to evaluate the age of ground water reaching the well and to evaluate the vulnerability of the well to nonpoint source input of nitrate and uranium. Particle tracking was used to compute pathlines and advective travel times in the ground-water flow model. The simulated ages of particles reaching the public-supply well ranged from 9 to 30,000 years, with a median of 54 years. The age of the ground water contributed to the public-supply well increased with depth below the water table. Measured nitrate concentrations, derived primarily from agricultural fertilizer, were highest (17 milligrams per liter) in shallow ground water and decreased with depth to background concentrations of less than 2 milligrams per liter in the deepest wells. Because the movement of water is predominantly downward as a result of ground-water development, and because geochemical conditions are generally oxic, high nitrate concentrations in shallow ground water are expected to continue moving downward without significant attenuation. Simulated long-term nitrate concentrations indicate that concentrations have peaked and will decrease in the public-supply well during the next 100 years because of the low nitrate concentrations in recharge beneath the urban area and the increasing proportion of urban-derived ground water reaching the well. The apparent lag time between peak input concentrations and peak concentrations in the well is about 20 to 30 years. Measured uranium concentrations were also highest (45 micrograms per liter) in shallow ground water, and decreased with depth to background concentrations of about 0.5 microgram per liter. Naturally-occurring uranium adsorbed to aquifer sediments is mobilized by oxygen-rich, high-alkalinity water. Alkalinity increased in shallow ground water in response to agricultural development. As ground-water pumping increased in the 1940s and 1950s, this alkaline water moved downward through the ground-water flow system, mobilizing the uranium adsorbed to aquifer sediments. Ground water with high alkalinity and high uranium concentrations is expected to continue to move deeper in the system, resulting in increased uranium concentrations with depth in ground water. Because alkalinity (and correspondingly uranium) concentrations were high in shallow ground water beneath both the urban and the agricultural land, long-term uranium concentrations in the public-supply well are expected to increase as the proportion of uranium-affected water contributed to the well increases. Assuming that the alkalinity near the water table remains the same, the simulation of long-term alkalinity in the public-supply well indicates that uranium concentrations in the public-supply well will likely approach the maximum contaminant level; however, the time to reach this level is more than 100 years because of the significant proportion of old, unaffected water at depth that is contributed to the public-supply well.
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USGS Numbered Series
Simulations of Ground-Water Flow and Particle Pathline Analysis in the Zone of Contribution of a Public-Supply Well in Modesto, Eastern San Joaquin Valley, California